3/3/2023 NEXT TO NORMAL Mad Artists' Entertainment/ Pumphouse Players
Just six days ago, I watched the restaging of the Jennie T. Anderson Concert production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning musical, Next to Normal, calling it “nothing short of brilliant.” In an unfortunate accident of rights differentials and scheduling, I now get to write about the show again, this time for the Mad Artists’ Entertainment and Pumphouse Players co-production.
I could take the easy way out, and just cut-and-paste last week’s review – both productions are strong, the libretto still moves, the music still compels, but that would be, I don’t know …. unfair, After all, the concert version had a full(ish) budget and some of Atlanta’s top talent available, as well as a live orchestra and a well-designed projection plot, while the MAE/PP production is in a small venue with limited technical capability, no budget, tracks for accompaniment, and a mostly volunteer cast. And yet, the show still works, still reducing me to tears, still eminently watchable, still one of the better musicals of the past twenty years.
I could also cut-and-past the template parts of last week’s review, recapping the plot of the show, its history, and its underlying conceits and excellence. But it may be easier to just link to the review – go here for a basic recap and analysis.
What I’d like to do here is to try to articulate why this is a show that is worth two visits in less than a week, why even a bare bones production such as this is worthy of notice, of comment, and, of your attention.
By now, you may or may not know that Next to Normal uses Mental Illness as a “MacGuffin” to examine family dynamics, to be the means by which a family rationalizes its dysfunction. We see the family (and the doctors) through its main character’s eyes, so we’re never really sure if what we’re seeing is real or
imagined. The concert version used psychedelic images and projections to let us know when we’re solidly in Diana’s world (sometimes), but the MAE/PP version proves that’s merely a razzle-dazzle extra, not a needed enhancement. Here the script itself, the performances let us know in no uncertain terms what’s real, what’s not real, and what’s maybe/maybe-not real. It actually underscores the family’s dilemma by having us share their experience, their bafflement, their confusion. And the plot twist mid-Act One is still as powerful, still as moving.
One of the subtexts of this piece is daughter Natalie’s fear that she may have inherited her mother’s condition, that she may one day find herself with her own delusions, her own pain. A strength of the libretto is her relationship with Henry, a fellow student, with whom she shares almost nothing at all, yet who assures her that no matter what the future holds, he will have her back. “I’m perfect for you.” Their youthful optimism is a perfect counterpoint to Mom and Dad, who no doubt shared the same optimism, the same devotion, maybe even the exact same conversation when they were just starting out, or at least when Diana was first diagnosed.
An interesting twist in this production is the casting of a female-identifying actor as Henry, who then plays the character gender fluid – at different points in the show, Henry is referred to as “He and Him” and, at others, as “my woman.” This makes that relationship so much more interesting than a “straight” traditional approach, and adds even more nuance to an already rich tapestry of ideas and emotions.
What makes both versions work is the strong casting choices – here Diana is played beautifully and richly by Sam Marie Kuzian-Leverette (Full disclosure – I recently worked with Sam Marie at Marietta Theatre Company). Despite my initial qualms that she is slightly too young for the role, she quickly won me over, and impressed me both musically and dramatically. As husband Dan, Evan MacLean is a wonderful ball of neuroses, clearly still in love with Diana, still devoted to her care and survival.
As daughter Natalie, Danielle Lorentz is equally talented and compelling, sometimes strong, sometimes falling apart. She is beautifully matched by Emily Roswell as Henry, who carries the character’s sense of humor like full body armor.
And as son Gabe, Tyler Webster is both menacing and loving, totally at home with the family, strongly “nailing” Gabe’s songs and anthems. As the Doctors, Vyanna Queen is impressive musically, but tends to let her scenes be overwhelmed by the tracks – in a small (unmiked) venue like this, not being heard (and understood) is a risk, and I would strongly suggest she work on her projection for the remainder of the run.
The set by Brett Everette fills the small stage well, and scene changes happen with speed and grace. Unfortunately the lighting design was barely adequate – soloists in the dark part of the stage, cues early and late, timing off. Another Full Disclosure – I have designed lights in this venue, so I may be a little too strict here, and I’m not sure the audience will be as nit-picky as I seem to be.
Director Matt Weeks has pulled most of the elements together well and has delivered a production that can be watched and enjoyed even by those who have seen more (recent) polished productions. This is not an easy show for a non-professional company and was a lot better than I was afraid it was going to be.
A final irony here – the purpose of the Jennie T. Anderson concerts is to bring difficult and seldom-performed musicals to an audience stripped of set and effects so the focus is on the libretto, on the score. Their production of Next to Normal was one of the best shows of this season. But the Mad Artists Entertainment / Pumphouse Players production strips away even more, and focuses more intently on the characters, on the music, on the story, validating for me the strength of the show and its enduring appeal. I suspect this is a show I will never tire of, will see again and again wherever it’s produced.
To repeat and paraphrase my closing phrase from six days ago, BOTH productions of Next to Normal will linger in my memory. Day After Day!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #MadArtistsEntertainment #PumphousePlayers #NextToNormal)